Colca Canyon anything that could go wrong did go wrong
9 Jul 2006
|The tour of Lake Titicaca finished, we head for Kingdom Travel to pick up our tickets. Unfortunately, our helpful agent cant come with us. No problem; we didnt expect him to. However, when we get to the bus station we find that they havent booked us a cama at all and instead we've got a semi reclining seat and whats more, the bus doesnt even end at Arequipa so we cant stay on until 6am as promised. Slightly dissappointed I make a phone call and the agent comes to the bus station. We agree on a compromise which involves hime phoning the agent for our trip to Colca Canyon in Arequipa and organising for her to meet us on arrival at 2.30am and oprovide us with accommodation at her hostel free of charge. There's nothing that can be done about the hotel but at least weve sorted out a place to stay. He hands me an envelope to pass onto the agent, I guess its got cash in to pay for the room.
Our Cruz del Sur bus is absolutely packed and the upstairs seems full of snorers. Whats worse is that the journey to Areqipa takes us over 10,000 feet in altitude on bad and windy roads and its absolutely freezing....there's ice on the inside of the windows and i can see my breath. I think Liz managed to get some sleep but i gave up and stared out at the darkness whilst trying to keep warm by ruibbing my hands and feet together.
We arrive at Areqipa at 3.30am an hour behind schedule and there's no one there to meet us. I try ringing the Areqipa agent but her phone is switched off. Arrghhh!!! I open the envelope to see whats in it. Sure enough there's US$10 I guess to pay for the room. There's also a copy of our invoices which we were not given. They made 50% commission on both the bus tickets and the Colca Canyon trip!!!! Arghhhh!!
The US$10 they wont see again thats for sure but now were stuck here without anywhere to go. Fortunately, Cruz Sur has an office at the station and the caretaker allows us to lie in till 6am. Its not bad actually with a couple of comfy sofas and plenty of plugs to recharge the batteries - better than if we had stayed on the bus in fact.
At 6am we set off to the main square, the Plaza de Armas, for our initial rendezvouz with the agent outside the Cathedral. Stood in the square I can see why Arequipa is such a tourist destination. The Plaza de Armas has a beautiful central garden with imposing palm trees and fountain and is surrounded on three sides by double storied arched colonial buildings built from the local luminous volcanic white stone, sillar. At teh end were vstanding is a mgnificent Cathedral with two large towers. Outside are a number of guides who seem to be taking their exams under the watchful gaze of an inspector. Overlooking the guides, the square and indeed the whole city are the peaks of 3 volcanoes: Misti at 5832m, Chachay at 5400m and Pichu-pichu at 5669m. The City was founded in 1540 but had previously been a town for the local Ayman Indian population.... Hold on. Hold on... something's wrong here. I havent got time to go into so much detail were supposed to be meeting the agent. Sure enough its almost 7.30am and it looks like she isnt coming. I try her phone again. She answers in a sleepy voice and its obviopus Ive just woken her up.
'Ah Francisco were are you? I came to meet you at 2.30 but you were not there.'
'Our bus was late and we didnt get in till 3.30am.'
'Yes, I know.'
My head cant handle the way this conversation is heading and i suggest we just stick with the original plan and she comes and meets us outside the cathedral.
She arrives and takes us back to the her hostel where we can leave our luggage whilst we go on our two day tour. I ask her whether it is possible to get a full bed bus seat in Peru.
'Francisco, the reason you didnt get a full bed last time is that you dealt with the agency in Lake Titicaca. If you had dealt with me i would have got you the full bed', she says wit han air of arrogance.
'Cool. Well can we have a full bed for the overnight trip to Cuzco in 2 days time please?'
'Yes, i will book it for you whilst you are on the trip. No problem.'
'Are you sure you will book us a full bed or should we go down to the station now and book it ourselves?'
She gives me a glare - 'Ive just told you i will sort it and it will be a full bed. OK?'
We get on the mini bus heading to Colca with 10 others and our guide who seems to speak good English. Our first stop is at a shop just on the outskirts of town where we can stock up for thye long trip and pose for a few piccies with teh 3 cones of the volcanoes in the background.
The guide feeds us with information as we make our way out of Arequipa but he's lost me as i'm unpleasently surprised by the Gaza Strip like scene of the shanti town on the outskirts of the city. The houses are small, adobe brick built, one room buildings, some without roofs and the streets are dusty with kids playing alonside stray dogs. The game of choice for these children, as it is for most of the children ive seen in the some of the poorest countries in the world, seems to be running with a rubber tyre and keeping it rolling with a stick or otherwise flying a homemade kite.
After stopping at a roadside diner and posing with an alpaca that seemed to have free range of strolling around the tables posing with tourist in exchange for some of their food, we arrive at the first real stop of interest; a vista of the main volcanoes of the altiplano. Judging by the countless artesan stalls selling the same thing this is quite a tourist attraction. Unfortunately the plate which tells you where each volcanoe is (so that you pick it out whilst looking) is not facing the view which seems like a bit of bad planning but rather appropriate for the way things are done in South America. Of more interest to me is the Andean mountain range to the East of these volcanoes and in particular one mountain, which the guide said is the source of the Amazon. Wow to be able to work your way from there out to the Atlantic - that would be a trip. Maybe one day.
We arrive at Chivay where we will stay for the night and although the guide is keen to get us all into our different hotels no one is keen to move from the restaurant where we have taken lunch which happens to be showing the final of the World Cup. Eventually the game finishes and to everyone's delight Italy win, although none of our fellow tourists are Italian.
Our guide accompanies Liz and I to our hotel and not surprisingly we havent got the matrimonial we had booked but a twin instead. Liz takes up the cause this time and explains that it wont do especially after what happened with the bus to Arequipa. The guide says he will sort it out after he takes us for a tour around the town of Chivay and to see the beginning of the Colca Canyon.
We walk across a magnificent but simple stone bridge and from our viewpoint on the ridge we can see where the bridge joins the rock of the canyon and follow the rock deep down to the bottom where a river if flowing. Very picturesque.
The canyon is the deepest in the world - yep even deeper than the Grand one in the states. For over 100 kms of its length it averages 3400 meters deep (2 milesmaking it nearly twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the USA. Further out, the sides of the valley, where it's wider, have been since way before the Incas and local farmers use the fertile volcanic soil to grow one of their most famous exports to teh world - the potato.
Our guide also shows us some little stone cairns which were the original dwellings of Indians in this area. They are small round stone huts with very little doorways. Another feature is the presence of rock tombs high above the valley with those belonging to important people painted bright red. They were built in the cliff face to deter robbers and studies are being undertaken at the moment with the hope of finding such a grave in tact.
We finish the first tour at La Caldera - the local hot springs. Theres a huge poster outside with the face of the locally elected politician and a banner line saying 'look what ive built for you people of Chivay!' Hmm i think you'll find the springs are natural Mr and the people have been using them for a long time. Could the new complex have anything to do with tourism. Typical of South America, the politicians win elections on grandiose projects which are a bit of a luxury whilst basic essentials such as health, infrastructure, education and employemnt get ignored. I guess they just arent exciting. The trouble is the people here go for it.
Inside there's a pool for the locals and a bigger pool where you have to pay effectively meaning its for tourists. Still its refreshing bathing in the natural hot spring for an hour. Hmm this is more like it - I think this guide is in tune with what his people want.
We get back to the hotel and our guide goes in search of alternative accommodation. He's been gone a while and eventually we get talking to the staff and another tourist who arrived the day before. She has a double room to herself and when she hears about our problem she immediately offers to swap rooms. Problem solved and were settled into our room just as teh guide returns to apologize and say that there is no option but to take the twin. Hmm its ok weve sorted it out ourselves...again.
The guide tells us that were all meeting for the a show at a local restaurant and tells us he will pick us up from teh hotel at 7.30pm. He doesnt of course its nearly 8pm when we bump into him by chance in the street and he tells us that there must have been a communication failure. We follow to the restaurant and there's only ourselves and another couple from our group attending, everyone else decided not to go. There are other westeners from other tours though and although we felt a bit disoriented by him telling us taht we were all going and it was officially organised it seems lively and were glad we went. A local group put on a traditional song and dance which includes audience participation which Liz kindly volunteers me for. Afetr the first attempts at the dance my Andean partner realised it was early in the night and if she was to see it through it was in her best interests, and those of her feet, to keep the dance very brief and simple. We spent the remainder of the song just walking. Another traditional dance reflects the collecting of the harvest and the wooing of the girl in the same dance. At one stage the Andean man's eye gets turned by another Andean lady and his girlfirend ends up whipping him. The Western lady playing the part of the girlfriend is seriously getting into the whipping thing. I mean seriously.
The next morning we set off early fot the Cruz del Condor. We stop at another local village and are greeted by a some villagers in traditioanl dress perfoming a dance whilst others stand in line with some traditional fauna from the area such as the eagle, a llama and an alpaca. Theres also a few souvenir stalls set up. The guide tells us its impromptu and they do this every morning. Christ he thinks were idiots.
Still its nice to see them in their traditional dress which consists of layers upon layers of intensive embroidery - they must have some serious doillies at home. The embroidery is specific to the region and features the local birds, fish and rivers that are the symbol of life for Quechua people. The ladies even wear an embroidered bowling hat.
To Cruz del Condor. Every morning as the sun warms the canyon, the Condors rise on the thermals so they can pose for the admiring tourist stood snapping away from one of the many miradors built right out on the edge of the canyon wall. We got there ealry and it was ages before we saw any. Eventually they appeared but not high enough tio get any great pictures that weve seen on teh posters. At around 1 o'clock the thermals are really in place and the condors are coming upto our level. Unfortunately 1 o'clock is the time our guide says right enough were going back. We find out from the locals that lunchtime is always the best time to get the condors and we suspect that we were taken here early just to get shopping in at the local village. Its a shame bacasue from the rearview window I can see them plunging and soaring. They are huge and magnificent and serene in their pose even if they are overgrown vultures. Arguably theyre not just posing theyre also out looking for food or roadkill to be precise - being overgrown vultures they dont hunt but feed instead on carrion.
On the way back to Arequipa the guide hands out tour company satisfaction forms to everyone but Liz and myself. I wonder why. Still, its funny and despite all thye problems its been a good trip. Ive even learned that Big Bird from Sesame Street isnt the continents biggest bird.
On arrival at Arequipa we have a couple of hours before our bus and head off to see the city's other famous attraction - Juanita, an Inca girl who was sacrificed to the Volcano God and who's frozen body is kept at the Museo Santuarios Andinos.
Her full name is 'Juanita, La Niña de los Hielos', the 550 year old Inca girl sacrifice was found in 1995 by a mountaineer called John, hence the name, on the summit of Volcan Ampato. Were shown a half hour National Geographic programme and given a tour round some Ina artefeacts. Come on Come on wve got a bus to catch we just want to see her anmd get a photo. Unfortunately we can only go around accompanied by an official guide. Eventually we arrive at the room and there she is kept in a glass case at low temperature, preserved in all her fine Inca ceremonial clothes. You can see she must have been a beautiful girl even though her face has been deformed by the point of impact where a club was used to strike hger and kill her. Theres also a display of the historical and scientific data associated with the discovery. Snap snap - right lets go.
We get back to the hotel keen to get to teh bus station in time. No worries says Elena its all sorted Ive just got some things to tidy up. We wait and wait and are getting really twitchy. Its 10 minutes before our bus leaves when she eventually comes with us in the taxi and then only because we said enough was enough and we wanted to go. And we travelled happily ever after. NOT!!
Well this trip wouldnt be this trip if it had gone as smoothly as that. We find out she hasnt booked us on the bus at all. In fact, the driver says yes Ive got a seat for them right here next to me. Remembering the bad night of travel to Arequipa and the promise Elena gave and the arrogance with which she delivered it and now the piss taking from the driver was all a bit too much for me and I hit the roof. A lot of people were shouted at and many trolleys got kicked whilst Elena picked up plenty of Anglo Saxon vocabulary but then they're used to erupting volcanoes round these parts.
Eventually i went off to see if I could find another company with a full cama. None were avialble it was too late. I sat down trying to put ity in perspective soi i would calm down and fortunately Liz went to see what she could find. Amazngly she found one operator, Xtra Sur, at the end of the terminal with 2 full cama seats. They must be a new game in town and no one had heard of them for the bus was fantastic and Liz got us 2 seats on the less crowded lower deck with 150 degree reclining camas. Perfect!! Luck b a lady!